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Lifetime Achievement in Business: Bill Darr

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William H. Darr is a man of few words, but his companies and accolades speak volumes.

He is perhaps better known by what others say about him. Through various awards programs, he has  been anointed a humanitarian, distinguished citizen, outstanding philanthropist, child advocate, outstanding alumni and master entrepreneur.

A former Springfieldian honoree and recipient of the Missourian Award, Darr’s career starts and ends in agribusiness, where he has turned a single idea for egg products into a $200 million annual venture through a trio of companies that started with American Dehydrated Foods Inc.

His name is synonymous with southwest Missouri agriculture, largely through his alma mater, Missouri State University. The Darr School of Agriculture brings together 20 faculty, 10 instructors, 19 staff, two visiting scientists and 400 graduate and undergraduate students across a dozen ag majors.

The 1957 MSU graduate says he owes his start in agribusiness to his education, most notably to Glenn Karls, the agriculture department head during Darr’s studies. Karls pointed the young Darr toward his first job, working in quality control at Henningsen Foods Inc. in Topeka, Kan. Sixteen years later, Darr latched on to an idea to utilize inedible egg products and has spun out ADF, International Dehydrated Foods and Food Ingredients Technology Co. Each company harnesses proteins for production in premium pet foods or for human consumption.

Darr first started a company – the now defunct Pets and Such – with partners in Mississippi and served as president until launching ADF in December 1978, returning to Springfield in 1979.

While a few odds were against him, Darr’s idea proved stronger than those forces.

“When I started the company, I went to Mercantile Bank, and they believed my story well enough to loan me enough money to keep me going,” he recalls. “I paid as high as 22 percent interest. That’s an unbelievable number in today’s world. It was a large sum of money, but not so much that I couldn’t still make a profit.”

The self-described entrepreneur then leaned on the raw material suppliers and customers he already was acquainted with in the edible egg business, including Hills Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Ralston Purina in St. Louis and General Foods.

Five years later, IDF rose from this work, starting with a plant in Monett. Darr and his team added a focus on products for human consumption – dehydrated chicken, beef and turkey – and chicken broth and fat sold to such companies as Knorr and Campbell’s.

The third leg of Darr’s budding food empire, FitCo, came as the result of a dinner discussion with business partner Clay Mathile about dehydrated products with a higher ratio of protein to fat. Two years later, a new process emerged to serve dehydrated chicken under U.S. Department of Agriculture edible product standards exclusively for Iams pet food. FitCo operates a plant in Anniston, Ala.

The companies, run by his sons-in-law, Kurt Hellweg and Tom Slaight, employ 500 and produce roughly $200 million in annual revenues combined.

Even at 80 and semiretired, Darr keeps his eye on the future of agribusiness.

“Agriculture is going to become more important every year as there are more people to be fed, not only in Missouri and the United States, but also throughout the world,” he says.

Through the Darr Family Foundation run by his daughters, Marsha Slaight and Sheryl Hellweg, Darr awards 10 scholarships each year to the MSU agriculture department and to high school students in his southeast Missouri hometown of Ellington.

Darr says he gives back “to see and get acquainted with some of these kids today. I see they’re so smart, and we’re so proud of them.”

From the 2011 Economic Impact Awards publication
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